Focusing my writing on South Korean cinema when I did (around 2000), as I met other cinephiles at film festivals I would occasionally find myself in conversations in which folks assumed I had previous interests in Hong Kong and Japanese cinema, as if there was a natural progression in Asian cinephilia. For the most part, I had to dissuade folks of those assumptions. But that dissuasion required the ‘for the most part’ caveat. See, besides the occasional Asian film like Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour (1994), there was one Asian auteur I was fascinated by, Nagisa Oshima.
I was never an Akira Kurosawa fan. I respected the importance of his work, but I wasn’t drawn to it myself. However, in college, I found myself assuming Kurosawa was popular amongst Japanese. But when I asked some Japanese my age what their favorite Japanese film was, they never mentioned Kurosawa. They always mentioned one film – Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). My Japanese college friends told me about this film, that it featured David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto, that it was, in a way, the Japanese Roots in that it was, in their life narratives, the first popular Japanese work to address the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. I would later learn that this film also addressed Japanese prejudices towards Koreans, that it exposed a less than subtle sublimation of gay desire in a country I mistakenly had pegged as fully homophobic, that the film featured a Japanese actor who would become famous in the West as a director along with his acting, Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi), and that I would have Sakamoto’s score eternally ready to loop itself forever in my head, a pleasant, fluffy sort of earworm. And it was this film’s popularity amongst my demographic cohorts in Japan that led me to my first published piece of film writing in a zine called Oriental Whatever published by my friend Dan Wu.
When I came to UC Berkeley for an internship, 100 Years of Japanese Cinema (1994) was brought to the old Pacific Film Archives (PFA). Along with directing, Oshima narrated this segment of the TV series for the British Film Institute. If I recall correctly, paired along with this screening, I got my first sense of Oshima’s confronting visual power through a screening of In The Realm of the Senses (1976). The PFA would provide me the opportunity to see Oshima depict a short story, The Catch (1961), by one of my favorite writers, Kenzaburo Oe. This was all I needed for inspiration to seek out whatever VHS copies I could rent or purchase, Cruel Story of Youth (1960), The Sun’s Burial (1960), Violence at Noon (1966), Empire of Passion (1978), and that fascinating critique of the French bourgeoisie through inter-species romance (featuring the great Charlotte Rampling), Max Mon Amour (1986).
I would find out a collection of Oshima’s writings had been published in English, Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima (1956-1978) (The MIT Press, 1992). I open that book now and find flyers from a 1999 series at the PFA where I saw Night In Fog in Japan (1960), Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969), and The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970). (Is that latter film the one with the mesmerizing scene at the library?) That book of Oshima’s writings is where I learned the word ‘zainichi‘ and found out about Oshima’s efforts to confront Japan’s treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan and other aspects of Japan’s colonial atrocities. Another flyer in that book was from a SF Cinematheque series celebrating the centenary of Bertolt Brecht in 1998 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts which featured Death By Hanging (1968). An image from that film graces the cover of the book of Oshima’s writings and Death By Hanging still stands as my all-time favorite Oshima film, another addressing Japanese prejudices towards Koreans.
Maureen Turim’s invigorating analysis The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast (University of California Press, 1998), is one of the few books I’ve read from beginning to end twice, including the footnotes. It helped me better understand the films of Oshima I had already seen while further fueling my desire to seek out the films I had yet to see. When would I get to see Boy (1969) beyond an un-subtitled VHS copy I found in SF Japantown? Please, please, please, someone bring Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) so I can see another Oshima repetition on the zainichi experience. And with a title like Sing a Song of Sex (A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs) (1967), how could I not want to see that?!
Thankfully, James Quandt apparently heard my pleas above the 49th parallel at Cinematheque Ontario, for he compiled the retrospective ‘In The Realm of Oshima’ that toured the world in 2009. This retrospective would make its way to the PFA where I had the opportunity to check more of the Oshima oeuvre off my list. Three Resurrected Drunkards would become a new favorite. My wife would discover an older Japanese film she actually liked in Boy. I would be reminded, well over a decade later, of the power of Oshima’s work and how he shook me to see the importance of a cinema that pushes you, that confronts you.
RIP, Oshima. Your films are anything but peaceful, and I thank you for that.